Guest Profile: Ingredients for Change

Mike knew from a very young age that he had the potential to become a great chef. “Everyone in my family knows how to cook,” he says. “My mother was a good cook, my father was a good cook, my grandfather was a good cook. It runs in my family on both sides and came very easily for me.” What Mike didn’t have was a stable, supportive environment when he was growing up, the middle child of five. His parents divorced when he was 10, and his devastated mother turned to alcohol and drugs to numb her pain. Mike didn’t know how to handle his own feelings, and going to school only made him feel worse because no one realized he struggled with dyslexia. “I had all this frustration,” Mike recalls. “I was young and didn’t know how to ask for help, so I did things my way.”

“My way”

This meant hanging out and partying with people who got into trouble, and at age 16, Mike dropped out of high school and moved in with his girlfriend and her mother. One year later, some friends talked him into helping with an armed robbery, during which a woman was killed. Mike was convicted of murder and sent to MCI-Walpole. “I thought my life was over,” Mike says softly. “Walpole was a dangerous place, and I knew that the only way I’d survive was to act out.” Mike frequently got into fights, drank home brew, gambled, and sold cigarettes. “I had a don’t-care attitude because I saw no reason to be hopeful.”

Five years into his sentence, Mike went to an AA meeting – just to get out of his cell – and was stunned to hear an older man talk about using drugs and acting out as a way to forget his childhood – which sounded just like Mike’s experience. “His whole story felt like he was talking directly to me,” Mike recalls. That was a major turning point. Over the next few months, Mike attended AA meetings frequently, he stopped drinking, fighting, and gambling, and he began attending church. “I went from causing a lot of trouble to being a model prisoner,” he says. “The CO’s kept asking what had changed. The simple answer was that I felt better about myself,” he says.

Mike enrolled in classes and was one of the first inmates chosen to raise a puppy for the NEADS seeing-eye dog program. Then he got a job in the administration building, with the help of several staff members. “I worked hard and did everything right. I did not want to let anyone down.” He also worked in the prison’s food service department, excelling at everything he did.

Over the next five years, Mike focused on getting stronger, learning anger management, and healing the emotional scars from his past. “I worked and worked until new patterns of behavior started to take hold,” he says. Mike was denied parole in 2005, but instead of letting the setback derail him, he continued to look toward the future, and he got to know Fred Smith, Director of Program Development, who came to the prison regularly to talk about the Sullivan Family Moving Ahead Program at St. Francis House. “There was always a line to see Fred Smith. Everybody respected him,” Mike recalls. Fred thought highly of Mike as well and spoke on his behalf at a second parole hearing in 2010. “Michael had transformed himself into a wonderfully strong, gentle spirit,” says Fred. “That’s quite an achievement given his background and the prison environment.”

Joining the Moving Ahead Program

After 20 years of incarceration, Mike was granted parole, on the condition that he complete MAP. On February 23, 2010, Mike walked out the prison door, accompanied by Fred. Mike had no idea how much his life was about to transform again. “I knew what career I wanted to pursue,” Mike recalls, “but there was so much I needed to learn.” Among those lessons: how to use a computer, how to apply for a job, dress for an interview, and carry himself. He also had to learn more basic skills, such as how to use a cellphone, buy a Charlie card, and open a bank account. MAP staff assisted with all of that, and encouraged Mike not to give up when the curriculum seemed daunting. Computer lessons were the hardest for Mike, until Ivor Edmonds, MAP’s Job Coach, taught him the coping skills he had lacked all during school. “Relax and take your time,” advised Ivor. “Don’t get overwhelmed with things, and don’t go back mentally to a place you don’t want to be.” Ivor also introduced Mike to yoga and encouraged him to run with the group Back on My Feet. Both activities taught Mike how to relax and quiet racing thoughts, which helped during MAP and after graduation, when he started a series of temp jobs.

Today

Today, Mike is a chef for a major Boston company and has also worked at Harvard University, Emmanuel College, and MIT. In his spare time, he runs 5K races for charity, trying to help other people who need support and encouragement. “St. Francis House basically gave me my life back,” Mike says. “Every lesson I learned in MAP played a vital role when I was starting my career and preparing for a new life. It all came together. I couldn’t be more grateful.”